Friday, March 25, 2016

Elzhi - Lead Poison Review

Not more than a few months ago the kickstarted Lead Poison was in murky, radioactive water. On the cusp of being hit with a lawsuit for his continued failures to release his next album, Elzhi, who silently twiddled his thumbs around promised release dates to the dismay of his pledging fans, suddenly appeared for a final time. With it being nearly five years since his highly-acclaimed, Illmatic tribute mixtape Elmatic, the Detroit emcee drops Lead Poison. Not without, ironically, bumping back the drop two more weeks mere days before it's initial release. All this controversy tends to elude underground Hip-Hop, which remains consistent in both output and adoration of the craft and its fans. But here was Lead Poison, another nonchalant backpacker street album, with a slew of fans angry, but eager, to see its release. Rarely has an underground force dwindled such an opportunity Elzhi was given. Peep El-P, and the immediate, and vigorous, steps he took to stronghold his place amongst Hip-Hop elite with Run The Jewels, after arduously pushing an album every five years. Jumping on an opportunity Elzhi did not, and so, he lands himself back where he started; crafting well-told, well-versed stories around Boom Bap meant to inspire.

In some demented critic light, having a backstory attributed to an underground Hip-Hop album, no matter how bad it is, is a breath of fresh air. I'm finally able to talk about something outside of the music itself. And given how quickly stagnating the 2000's backpacker scene has become, churning out a review over the same tired topics would've been near impossible. But alas, Elzhi has shown us context. Not only does he acknowledge, many times over, his fans' wait, he pleads for their forgiveness. Sincerity pours out on songs like 'Medicine Man' and 'Introverted,' where he attributes writer's block and insecurities to the lack of output. It's actually the former that leads the theme of Lead Poison, with Elzhi's own ambition striking fear into his scribbling pencil. The battle with someone's inner demons is often a topic addressed in music, but one that seldom comes off as relatable and personal as it does here. The first sounds on the LP are that of a frantic pencil, constantly unsure and on edge about what to write next. Makes sense considering his last, and most highly-renowned work, borrowed from its source material more than original penmanship found its way in.

The track that best exemplifies this sense of mental combat is 'Hello!!!!!,' with Elzhi anthropomorphizing the song as he fights back against it. The idea and execution are brilliant. "So now I’m clashing with symbols while trying not to get beaten by the bass" he reams, essentially arguing with himself through the art form he knows best. Two long verses filled with calligraphic imagery makes 'Hello!!!!!' the prime specimen for Elzhi's own psychological torment. However, on the flip side of the coin, when we're not so concerned with defining a narrative, Elzhi's best here is 'The Healing Process.' Never before have I heard a lyricist pour heartfelt stories so fast, yet so coherent, over such an inconspicuous beat. There is no better track one can show off as a testament to Elzhi's underrated poetics than this. With the only drums on hand being masked by a starry-eyed background, Elzhi is left to his own wits, churning in one of the most awe-inspiring verses arising out of the underground in a long time. And while these two are the towers for purpose and passion, others here succeed in their own right.

Tracks like 'February,' 'Two 16's,' and 'She Sucks' to name a few. Storytelling that ranges from inner-city broken homes to outrageous monster flicks, Elzhi's command of content is something to witness here. And when you bring excellent wordplay, superb lyrical dexterity, and a compassionated voice into the mix the high's on Lead Poison are something to ogle at. 'Weedipedia' follows Elzhi down the road of a prison inmate incarcerated for possession of drugs, while 'Introverted' sees him tackling his inherent reclusiveness in a genre dominated by excess. And while each respective song is vivid and heartfelt, at least the one's that succeed, this differentiation also brings about Lead Poison's strongest criticism; it's consistency, both in terms of sonic appeal and album progression. The former because the song's lacking direction falter immensely, the latter because the LP's sketchbook-like construct fails to give a clear mission statement. With Elzhi's songwriting pitfalls on display, the need for album cohesion was important. And while this may be a personal preference, the darting ideas like drawings etched all over a notebook, bearing no relation to one another, doesn't appeal to me. 

It's in cases like this that songs like 'The Healing Process' or 'Hello!!!!!' are found tainted by 'Misright' and 'Friendzone.' With zero rapping features over the 16 tracks, Elzhi is left to his own wits and does excellent holding up the pen. But the three features that do appear, all R&B crooners, stagnate the album's back half by consuming it with tedious drivel. 'Alienated' features Smitty's nasally singing, taking the premise of 'Friendzone' and the worst of 'Introverted' and amalgamating them into a track that's entirely pointless. If it weren't for Elzhi's reimagining of Ghostface Killah's recent output on 'She Sucks' the majority of the second half, especially the feature-assisted songs, would all be for naught. Even the album's grand finale 'Keep Dreaming' falls short in vision, leaving the last verse for acapella refrain that doesn't do much to ooh and aah. Regardless, the moments of Lead Poison that spring off the paper full of life has me reliving an age where being a lyricist mattered. The fact that I rarely mentioned the production here isn't a fluke, Elzhi commandeers your attention throughout, the Boom Bap merely serving as a backdrop. Lead Poison, in theory and execution, is honest street Rap done right.

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